Saturday, September 27, 2014

Two Favorites for the Jewish New Year: Best-Ever Honey Cake and Murray's Kreplach, Revisited

This holiday season has brought new twists to two traditional Jewish favorites.  Murray's Chicken-Beef Kreplach has found an even wider audience. And I made my first low-sodium honey cake.

Murray's Chicken-Beef Kreplach

Big thanks to Barbara Rolek, the resident Eastern European food expert over at, for featuring Murray's Kreplach on her comprehensive and fascinating cooking site. You can find her story about my father-in-law's kreplach recipe here, along with many other excellent resources. I am happy to report that Barbara (unlike me) made it the ultra-traditional way, complete with schmaltz and salt!

This all came about when I discovered that Barbara, who is of Polish descent, is a distant DNA cousin of my Slovenian American mom--at least according to 23andMe, the genetic genealogy testing service we both used. It was a wonderful coincidence, since we already had connected around our overlapping culinary interests. Barbara includes "Slovenian Roots Quest" in her list of Eastern European food blogs. I have often consulted her site for help with Balkan food that is outside the Slovenian tradition, like her Serbian flatbread recipe.

You can find my original post about Murray's Kreplach here, and the low-sodium version I eventually prepared here. The next time, I may follow Barbara's example and try it--just once--with chicken fat and a touch of salt!

Honey Cake

Some people joke that honey cake, a traditional new year sweet served at Rosh Hashanah, is just like Christmas fruitcake: it lasts forever because no one really likes to eat it!  But I love a good honey cake and often experiment with new recipes. This year, I took on a new challenge: to come up with a low-sodium version. I decided to adapt a recipe I found in one of my favorite cookbooks, The Book of Jewish Food, by famed British food writer Claudia Roden, who grew up in Cairo's once-flourishing Jewish community.

Roden's book, winner of the 1996 James Beard award, is a standout for a few reasons. Her intelligent writing draws on considerable research, rich history and personal reflection. She was probably the first food writer to focus on the lesser known parts of the Jewish diaspora: the Sephardi and Mizrahi communities, whose original homes were in the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

Roden's original recipe can be be found here. This style of honey cake or lekach is actually from the more familiar Ashkenazi tradition, which draws heavily on Central and Eastern European cooking styles.

To turn this dish into a low-sodium version, my first step (the easy one) was to simply omit the "pinch of salt" Roden suggests. The real challenge, as always, was in the leavening. She calls for baking soda and baking powder, both high in sodium. So I would have to substitute a low-sodium baking soda and then figure out what sort of acidic agent to add, in order to duplicate the effect of baking powder.

From past experience, I knew that figuring out exact quantities for the low-sodium substitute can be tricky. (The usual suggestion, to double it, isn't always sufficient.) It is also important to bake quickly once the ingredients are mixed, since low-sodium baking soda is single-acting.

Here are the changes I made to Roden's recipe:  I was generous with the baking soda. To give it an extra boost, I added two acidic ingredients, brown sugar instead of white and orange juice to replace half the coffee. To enhance the flavor, I increased the spices: more cinnamon and cloves plus some ginger added to the mix. I skipped the nuts, raisins, and orange rind to save time, but perhaps this also helped by eliminating extra weight.

Even honey cake devotees will concede that getting the right texture can be a challenge. The cake can be too heavy, too underdone, or too dry. Sometimes it inflates and deflates during baking and ends up with a big sinkhole in the middle. So I had plenty of worries about my low-sodium adaptation--especially when I discovered that I had forgotten to turn on the oven! I lost precious minutes waiting for the oven to heat up, while I watched the unbaked batter starting to bubble away on the counter.  Finally, I gave up and popped it in before the oven was fully heated.

For the recipe and the results, read on.

Honey Cake

Jewish Honey Cake or Lekach  (low sodium, adapted from Claudia Roden)

2 eggs
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup oil
1 cup dark honey
2 T. rum
1/4 cup warm coffee
1/4 cup orange juice
2 cups white flour
1-1/2 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. cloves
1 t. ginger
4 t. low sodium baking soda

(Higher sodium option:  2 t. regular baking soda and 1/2 t. baking powder, plus pinch of salt)

CORRECTION: Roden's original recipe calls for 2 t. baking powder and 1/2 t. baking soda.
(I got it reversed!)  See complete updated recipe here.

First, prepare pan. Line a 9-inch spring form pan with foil.  Oil and dust with flour.  Set aside. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a medium-sized bowl, mix together the flour, spices and baking soda. Set aside.

In a large bowl, beat eggs with sugar until thick and lemon-colored. Add oil, honey, rum, coffee, and orange juice. Beat until smooth. Add dry ingredients slowly to liquid ingredients, beating until smooth.

Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake at 350 degrees for about 1 hour and 15 minutes, until top is firm and springs back when touched.  Let cool on a rack. When cool, wrap in foil. If you can, wait at least a day or two (or three) before slicing and eating.

Honey Cake

The result? This was the most successful honey cake I have ever made. It was moist and flavorful, with an intriguing flavor of burnt sugar.  I have never found a single "best" recipe for honey cake.  But this may be it.

I have no idea why this particular recipe worked out so well. Perhaps the foundation, Claudia Roden's recipe, uses slightly different proportions of the basic ingredients that are common to the many other recipes I have tried. Was it the imported wildflower honey from Germany?  Using a round cake pan instead of my usual loaf?  Whatever the mysterious alchemy at work, I hope it can be duplicated the next time I have an urge for honey cake.

UPDATE: I made this recipe the following year, without the low sodium adaptation.  It was even better--despite a little over-leavening!  Go here to see the full post.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

My First Albanian Dinner: Potato-Cabbage Borscht and Vegetable Byrek

Albanian Potato-Cabbage Borscht  (Supë borsh me patate e lakër)
Albanian Pie with Vegetables   (Byrek Shqipëtar me perime)
Greek Yogurt and Ajvar
Green Salad
Cabbage Slaw

My first serious cooking after our return from Europe wasn't Slovenian. It was Albanian.

The final stretch of our three-week journey had left a deep impression. We had spent four days in Kosovo, where most people are ethnic Albanian. On a day trip into Albania itself, we enjoyed an extraordinary meal at a Slow Food "farm-to-table" restaurant near a remote mountain village. It was a short but intense time that left me dreaming of mountains and minarets, once we had returned to California. I also missed the family we had left behind in Kosovo: our journalist son and the lovely young woman I could now consider my daughter-in-law.

Even before the trip, I had been curious to experiment with some Albanian cooking, but I hadn't found many resources in English. Now I had more determination--and some time on my hands, since my husband was off visiting his father in Florida for a few days. I resolved to welcome him back with a home-cooked Albanian meal.

After some serious online searching, I found some good resources. The best seemed to be The Frosina Information Network, a Boston-based Albanian cultural organization.  In fact, many of the recipes scattered around the web seemed to be "borrowed" from their recipe section.

I found two recipes that looked promising.  The first was an Albanian-style borscht. The second was a vegetable burek that sounded something like zeljanica, a spinach-cheese pie I had prepared last Christmas.  I already had most of the ingredients on hand.

The recipes below follow Frosina's versions closely.  Along with making half-recipes, I also made a few substitutions, as noted. To see the originals (and for other Albanian recipes) do visit their website.

For the results, read on.

Albanian Potato-Cabbage Borscht  (Supë borsh me patate e lakër)

1/2 onion, chopped
1-2 T. oil
1 carrot, chopped
1-1/2 stalks celery, chopped
1 T. flour
1 T. catsup (my substitute for tomato sauce)
3 cups chicken broth
1/2 lb. cabbage, chopped (I used red cabbage)
1-2 T. vinegar, to taste
1/2 lb. potatoes, chopped
1 small beet root, diced into cubes
pepper and salt (I used salt-free seasoning mix) to taste

Brown onions in oil. Add carrots and celery and continue to brown. Add flour and brown, then add catsup or tomato sauce and a little broth, continuing to stir so sauce remains smooth.  Cover and simmer on low heat, then add the rest of broth. Bring to a boil. Add beet and cook 15 minutes. Add potatoes and cook 20 more minutes, or until all vegetables are soft. Add pepper, salt or salt-free seasonings, and (if desired) more vinegar to taste. Serve with Greek yogurt or sour cream.

Albanian Pie with Vegetables   (Byrek Shqipëtar me perime)

1/2 cup (or less) olive oil
about 12 oz. prepared filo dough (I used whole wheat), thawed if frozen.

For filling:

12 oz. fresh spinach or other greens (I used kale)
1/2 cup feta cheese, diced
1/4 cup green onions, sliced
1 egg, beaten
pepper and salt (I used salt-free seasoning mix)

First, a word about the greens. The Frosina recipe suggests spinach, but I had read elsewhere that other varieties of greens can be used. Since I had a bag of cut, rinsed kale on hand, I decided to use that.

So, to make filling:  Greens should be rinsed well, trimmed, and chopped.  If salt is not a concern, sprinkle the prepared fresh greens with salt and mix well by hand.  (I skipped the salt.) Add remaining filling ingredients and set aside.

Brush an 8 or 9 inch round baking pan with oil. Begin layering filo leaves, two at a time, brushing with oil before adding the next layer. Let leaves extend over edge of pan, in a sort of "fan" pattern. Continue until half the filo is used. Spread filling on top. Cover filling with the remaining pastry leaves.  Roll up the overhanging edges to cover the top.  Brush top with oil.  Bake at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes.
Let cool before cutting.  Serve with Greek yogurt or sour cream.

The verdict?

The soup was delicious, with a beet flavor that was less dominant than in the typical borscht. Instead, the brown roux and vinegar gave this Albanian version a subtle, intriguing tang. We both found it a refreshing change.

We also liked the vegetable byrek, which was heavier on the greens and lighter on the cheese and eggs  than the zeljanica I had made at Christmas. The fresh kale, especially without the addition of salt, gave the filling a tough, assertive quality that I thought could use a little softening, although my husband didn't mind it.  The next time, I will probably steam the kale first or go back to using spinach.

All in all, my first outing with Albanian cooking felt like a success!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Mlinci Magic, Direct from the Ljubljana Farmers' Market!

I was in an odd state when we returned home to California after three weeks in Europe.

I felt suspended between two worlds. I kept dreaming of faraway landscapes. The beautiful Adriatic coast. Remote settlements in the Dolenjska hills where my Slovenian ancestors once lived. Limestone caves in the karst. Castles and bridges in Ljubljana, Slovenia's capital. The jagged vitality of Kosovo.  Steeples and minarets. The harsh and mysterious mountains of Northern Albania. And all the welcoming people we met along the way.

The food and wine were also memorable, but they were a backdrop to the deeper journey.

Still, I was glad to have brought back a few edible souvenirs. Sea salt from Piran. Domači prijatelj (Slovenian biscotti) from the big modern Maxi Market a blocks from our studio apartment in Ljubljana, where we spent a week. From the apartment, it was just a few more blocks to the daily farmers' market near Ljubljana's old town. We consumed most of our purchases, but I did end up with two market mementos to bring home: a half-eaten bag of honey cookies and a big package of mlinci.

Mlinci (m'LEEN-tse) is an unusual food, at least by American standards, although it is a staple in Slovenia and northern Croatia. It is a sort of  egg noodle/cracker hybrid: first baked into a large flatbread and later reconstituted by soaking. I had made it from scratch exactly two years earlier, in July of 2012, as a foundation for a stuffing-like side dish to accompany roast duck.  At that time, I had to rely on photos and recipes as a guide, so I was excited to spot a package of the real thing at one of the stalls at the Ljubljana farmers' market.

A closer look (and a taste) showed me where I had gone astray. The genuine Ljubljana mlinci was far more thin and delicate than the sturdy rounds I had created in my Berkeley kitchen.  According to the directions that came with my purchase, only a very short soak was needed. Suggestions for a variety of sweet and savory preparations were included.

A few days after we returned home, I decided it was time to break out the mlinci, with my husband doing the honors.  I suggested that he roast a chicken and explained how to soak the mlinci and then toss them in the pan juices.  He added a few twists of his own, onions and mushrooms, and created a tasty side dish that was even better than my own first attempt.

I had also read that unsoftened mlinci could be broken up and (in the words of the cooking site) "crashed into the soup." So, a few days later, I made soup from the leftover chicken carcass and added a garnish of mlinci. It was an easy and tasty addition.

I kept thinking about a sweet mlinci dish. The instructions had suggested a few possible additions, along with sugar.  Curd cheese and marmalade. Poppy seeds and nuts. Fruits. It sounded like a promising breakfast dish.  

This week, I finally gave it a try. The first time, just for myself, I layered soaked and drained mlinci bits with orange marmalade, fresh strawberries and farmer cheese.  Not bad.  It tasted like a sweet Jewish noodle kugel.  Or--a closer parallel--sweet matzo kugel. 

On the weekend, feeling more confident, I decided to make a breakfast dish to share with my husband.  This time around, I used blueberry preserves along with the farmer cheese and strawberries, and I popped the finished mixture into the microwave for a quick warming.  With a little Greek yogurt on the side, it was a lovely and elegant weekend brunch dish that reminded me of deconstructed blintzes.

At this rate,  I will soon face a new challenge: replenishing the mlinci when the current supply runs out! 

Sweet Mlinci

mlinci, purchased or homemade
curd cheese or farmer cheese
marmalade or preserves
strawberries or other fresh fruit, cut up and sweetened if desired
Greek yogurt or sour cream for serving

Break mlinci into bite-sized pieces and soak in very hot water until softened. With thin mlinci, this may take just a few minutes. Drain in a colander or sieve. Prepare berries or other fruit and sweeten with a little sugar, syrup, or preserves if desired. In a serving bowl, make several layers of  mlinci, cheese, marmalade or preserves, and fruit. Tastes especially good (like blintzes!) if warmed up before serving.  Garnish with yogurt or sour cream.